Ryanair plans to carry 1 million more passengers, hike profits as new service culture delivers

Ryanair says it plans to carry an extra 1 million passengers this year and has raised its profits outlook on the back of wide-ranging service improvements that have boosted sales and filled more aircraft.

The Dublin-based carrier told its annual general meeting Thursday that it plans to carry a record 87 million passengers in this fiscal year, better than its previously guided 86 million, and achieve net profits at or close to 650 million euros ($825 million). That would reach the top end of its previous forecast and be 24 percent better than its net profits from the previous fiscal year that ended in March.

Ryanair shares rose as much as 4.2 percent in early trade in Dublin before retreating to 7.35 euros ($9.35), up 0.5 percent. Its market value has grown by nearly a fifth this year, the strongest gain among airlines across Europe.

The carrier this year introduced flexible and family-friendly tickets, smoother online booking, easier baggage rules, and automatically assigned seats — all U-turns from a previous Spartan service culture that customers tolerated in exchange for cheap fares and extensive short-haul options.

Ryanair says these improvements have helped to increase the average airplane "load factor," the industry measure of sold seats, to an exceptionally high 91 percent of all available.

On Wednesday, Chief Executive Michael O'Leary unveiled a new Ryanair agreement to work with the travel agent engine Amadeus. Combined with an earlier deal with competitor TravelPort, Ryanair tickets are now available for third-party sale to networks that drive 90 percent of travel agent activity in Europe.

That, too, reversed a decade-long policy of trying to block travel agents from selling Ryanair tickets. The new policy is designed to attract corporate and government clients, who have long shunned Ryanair in part because of its refusal to provide flexible tickets.

Ryanair's new "business plus" tickets cost moderately more but can be rescheduled for free. They offer no extra legroom or other on-board frills associated with premium tickets, but represent a viable new option for cost-cutting employers.

O'Leary recently has struck new orders for up to 200 new Boeing aircraft as part of his goal to boost Ryanair's fleet to 500 by 2019. He has expressed ambitions to expand Ryanair's route network into Russia and the Middle East, possibly through a proposed acquisition of state-controlled and debt-crippled Cyprus Airways.